Ill-kept secret

Giuliana's has great Italian. Pass it on.

I have a "friend" who just last week told me he absolutely and without question knew where the very best sushi in town was served. All the sushi chefs go there, he told me as proof of truth, but he would not tell me where the place is. "You'll just write about it and ruin it," he claimed and clammed up.

"I know this great little Italian place where we can go...They make the best (fill in the blank) clam linguine, marinara, eggplant parmigiana..." It's a line written for the movies, or a TV show. Everyone dreams of the undiscovered little restaurant where the food is fantastic, the service personal, the prices low. Keep dreaming. Because these kinds of places are only found in TV land. Get it straight: If nobody knows about such a great little place, the great little place is going to be gone. Restaurateurs don't want their restaurants treasured as a romantic secret. They just want to make money.

It's a competitive, I could say cutthroat, business and restaurants can't afford to be treasured. If you really, really like a place, you're doing the proprietors a favor to tell everyone you know about it. So I was glad when another friend called last week, ecstatic over a new little Italian restaurant she'd found that she said no one else knew about--yet. "I've got a real scoop for you!" she said, and while that's not exactly true, after my first visit, I am glad to let more people know about Giuliana's.

Without going into actual mileage details, let me just point out that Giuliana's is in Garland, about as far off the beaten restaurant trail as you can get. It's in an undistinguished strip center at the corner of Jupiter and Lookout, a location that sounds as far away as it is. You'll see the sign that says "catering" before you see the word "Giuliana's"; the owner, Philip Janetto, worked for a number of hotels (the last one being the Anatole) and he knows about catering: The menu advertises that Giuliana's will handle rehearsal dinners, weddings, meetings, and all kinds of private dinners. The dining rooms at Giuliana's even have names, like ballrooms and meeting rooms in hotels: The Josephina, Cecelia, and Margherita rooms are named after Janetto's grandmothers and a great aunt. But as Janetto grows his dining business, he's relying on Sicilian family recipes more than hotel food.

On a Friday night, the dining room wasn't full, but there were a number of tables taken, mostly by regulars. On a Monday evening, we were the only diners there except for a few picking up their to-go orders (not an option for us since we were 30 miles from home). The restaurant's style teeters between elegant and lunchroom: Chairs are cherry-stained, the tables are spread with thick white linen, and the walls are upholstered in gold brocade; there are "serious" paintings on the wall, still lifes and old masterish dark reproductions, but the elegant details look a little odd under the acoustic tiles, and the service tends to be the chatty, khaki-clad variety, far from white-glove. But everyone was friendly and solicitous and, after all, that's what matters in a place like this, more than whether the water is poured from the right or the left.

You begin with a basket of Empire bread, thickly sliced, and we asked for the garlic dip, a little ramekin of green olive oil with bits of garlic and shredded basil, to go with it. It sounds basic enough, but the genius of the thing is that the oil is slightly warmed, so the flavors flood the mouth and you get the full fruity taste of olive oil, and the bread is heated, so the crust is crisp and the crumb steams with the fresh smell of yeast. Crostini, made from the same loaf, were toasted and garlicked before being spread with a softly bland ricotta cheese, chopped tomatoes, and bits of basil, with a final fling of grated parmesan. The contrasting texture on the tongue of creamy ricotta and crusty bread, the mouth-watering tang of juicy tomatoes, and the sinus-clearing whiff of the sharp minty leaf made a full sensory mouthful.

I could make a meal from the appetizers at Giuliana's: The bread, the crostini, and a plate of hot Italian sausages with a glass of red wine would be a perfect dinner. But right now you have to bring your own wine; Giuliana's is still waiting for its license from Austin. Janetto uses Syracuse brand sausage, made in Ponder, Texas, by some guys from New York. It is split lengthwise, grilled, and served with a little cup of truly great marinara--the acidity of the fresh tomatoes rounded by the soffrito base on which good Italian sauces are built, the sauteed vegetables cooked till all their sugar is drawn out and the soft, red mass holds its shape in the spoon without any apparent thickening by paste. An appetizer portion of manicotti in a little gratin was topped with this same sauce, ladled with a delicate hand so the crepe wasn't drowned to mush and you could still taste the herb-flecked cream filling.

Salads are the weakness here, a major disappointment between first and main course. I would advise you just to skip them as they are served now--a freezing-cold plate of lifeless leaf lettuce lying flat as road kill, drizzled with the house dressing, a weird, thick glop of congealed tomatoey sauce. Forget it.

The menu's main dishes come from country-style Sicilian cuisine--lots of eggplant, sausage, the hearty, rich dishes that formed the basis for American Italian food. In Pasta e fagioli, swirls of noodles with beans in rich tomato sauce, the marinara was thickened by the bean starch into a hearty vegetable stew. Cappelini alla Anna mixed the same noodles with chopped Roma tomatoes and, unexpectedly, chopped, stuffed green olives instead of dark fruity ones, but the sharp saltiness was fine with the soft pasta. Ravioli--round pasta dumplings filled with mealy dry ricotta and mixed with more of that marinara--was delicious. Chicken Giuliana is the house's signature dish, a sauteed boneless breast topped with a slice of breaded, purple-edged eggplant, sprinkled with peas and artichoke hearts and sauced with a clear-brown veal reduction. Eggplant-sausage parmigiana--breaded slice of eggplant and slices of sausage layered with tomato sauce and cheese--was a mother of a casserole, as earthy as it gets.

Entrees come with a side of pasta and tomato sauce and a ratatouillelike melange of melted onions, zucchini, and squash.

Specials reached a little further; on our visits several of them were finished with the cream sauces more typical of northern Italian food, translated originally in this country into hotel or continental cuisine. A filet of snapper was topped with artichoke hearts, tomatoes, and olives; and tiny bay scallops were mixed with cooked celery and creamy cubes of avocado in a wine-cream sauce, an improbable-sounding combination that mixed beautifully into a nest of cappellini.

There is hardly a dessert in the world that could appeal after dinner food like this. Oddly, Giuliana's desserts left Italy completely:Most of them were pure American inventions, not at all a natural finish to the tastes of marinara and olive oil, but delicious nonetheless. Homemade peach blueberry pie spilling from its browned and flaky crust onto the plate in an oozing lava of luscious fruit, and cheesecake, a barely sweet wedge of white, creamy and light in the mouth, were the best we tried.

Giuliana's, Jupiter at Lookout in Garland, 530-2325. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; for dinner Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m.

Giuliana's:
Crostini $3.95
Cappellini alla Anna $7.95
Ravioli $6.95
Chicken Giuliana $10.95
Eggplant-Sausage Parmigiana $8.95

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